Creator to Creator: Flora Shum

From paper moulding to book binding, Paperhouse Studio is a small space at Artscape Youngplace where wonderful paper magic happens. It’s a gem of great paper art because there really aren’t that many places around Toronto dedicated to the practice and representation of the art form. When Flora, one of the founders of the experimental studio welcomed my interview request, I couldn’t wait to hear not just her story as the owner and educator of the space, but also as a practicing artist and a community supporter.

I’m very excited to share my interview with Flora: Read below as she discusses how her interests in print and paper-making started, and how these interests came together in inspiring the start of Paperhouse Studio! Also, check out who her “favourite” multimedia artist is (and how beautiful and colourful the interview is)! – Mirae.


Photo credit: Susanne van der Kleij at Paperhouse Studio, pictured with in process work by Meghan Price for In House 2017.

Can you tell us about your art practice? How did you get into printmaking?

My art practice focuses on creating identity through multiple access points. I’m interested in the structure of cultural and familial values and the stories that get passed down through generations and also the ones that do not. I am also drawn to the use of landmarks and landscapes as geographical identification, and how history, nature and development intersect.

I entered OCADU in 2006 without much of a background in art. I had only ever drawn with graphite, pens, colour pencils and those kind of materials. I remember getting excited in high school art class when we got to do something that wasn’t using traditional drawing tools. We got some old lino blocks once — the kind that crumbled as you carved. I had to get my best friend to help me carve it at some point because my hand hurt so much. But I loved it for some reason. I guess I liked both working with my friend and being able to print the block over and over again. I chose printmaking as my major partially based on a pretty loose memory of loving it once upon a time, and partially because I wanted to go into something I had no knowledge about. And honestly, I chose it on a whim!

What is the story behind Paperhouse Studio – how did it come about?

Paperhouse Studio is an experimental studio rooted in paper arts. We have an educational program, we work on artist projects and, through our outreach arm Paperhouse Outreach Collective, we design outreach programs with community building as the core. Paperhouse started from a small group of artists coming together and recognizing that we needed a publicly accessible paper studio in Toronto. We had dreams of creating a safe space that would house the tradition and history of paper and continue to experiment and explore the possibilities of paper through tactile studio play. We believe in paper as not just a substrate, but in the medium itself. In 2010, Artscape put out a call for studios for the building Artscape Youngplace, which we are currently in.  We knew it was a perfect fit because of similar ideals — we wanted to be part of a bigger arts and cultural hub.

It’s been about four years since Paperhouse opened (congrats!), and you and Emily have held many workshops, projects, collaborations with other organizations, etc – what are some challenges about running a small studio? What do you enjoy or love about being part of it?

Thanks, I can’t believe it’s been 4 years! There are many, many challenges for sure. Every year we adjust our vision, adding and subtracting ideas. Staying adaptable is key but difficult. We’ve tested so many different structures, from product making to renting space to artists. Not to mention the steep administrative learning curve! Hours of researching and talking to other folks about accounting, websites, workshop structures, space building and organizing — it’s endless. I have to admit, there are days when you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel and then there are days when you just don’t care you’re in a tunnel at all!

I think the biggest challenges I personally had to face in running a small studio is the mental energy to continue. We get asked all the time “Why do you do what you do? What’s the point?” I don’t think it’s a unique question to us but a bigger question that artists, designers, crafters — really any creators — get asked all the time. I believe in the vision of the studio, but it does get exhausting to answer that question over and over again. It feels like it’s your job to justify and convince people why the arts and culture matter and explain how it affects them personally. People don’t see that everyone has a role to play here and it should not be just us on this boat getting pushed to jump ship. It’s a big challenge for me to practice self-care and restore that mental energy that can drain you.

What helps is when I see the direct effect our studio can have. It’s as simple as one person getting excited because they made their first sheet of paper. You can see the magic happen and things fall in place for that person. I also know it’s all worth it even if it means seeing one young artist feel comfortable, welcomed and finding the community support to keep making art. That’s what I love about the studio and it easily outweighs all the bad that comes with the challenges.

What draws you into paper and print-making? What do you think is the beauty of paper?

I was drawn into printmaking because of the cause and effect possibility that you see in a long process. You change one step and the final result morphs. Through printmaking I found papermaking and suddenly it all started making sense. I was drawn to paper because of its tactile quality and its history to me.

To me, the beauty of paper is time. It holds the history from the origins of the fibre: the process it undergoes to becoming pulp and then the hand of the artist using the medium, putting their own marks and journey in the paper. I love how paper’s history shows the movement and migration of people. It holds the narratives of each culture. It is an integral and central root that connects to print and book history, and the need to write down and share stories. I love that.

What are questions or themes you’ve been thinking about recently, or interested in exploring?

I’ve been thinking a lot about cultural traditions — stories, superstitions and beliefs  — that are passed down through generations. I question how that intersects with family history: what our parents went through, what our grandparents experienced. How do languages, objects and environments play a role? I am looking to tie this in with the history of paper and the larger history of the arts.

What can we look forward to, in your creative career, in the next few months?

In the next few months, Paperhouse Studio will be launching a new initiative that we hope will add to our community-building foundation. For me personally, I hope I can start a new project that will bridge my paper and print interests while addressing the larger themes that I’ve been exploring simultaneously. Although I would need more than a few months for sure — I’m a slow creator! 🙂

Lastly, what does your identity mean to you?

I’ve been thinking about identity and trying to find a personal definition for years! It definitely wasn’t an active choice. But when you frequently get asked the infamous “Where are you from?” or even worse (cue the eye roll) “What are you?”, you start to think about these things.

For now, I’m going to say that identity means two things to me. The first is ‘community’, the second is ‘questions’. I find myself in others: my family, friends, heroes I admire and folks that are making or doing work I feel a connection to. I also find my identity in food, landmarks and environments. I also believe identity is fluid. I give myself space to check in and re-think identity because I’m still learning and figuring it out. I don’t I have any answers, just lots of questions. I’m pretty comfortable with being in the state where a back and forth dialogue happens more than concrete definitions. I think questions say more than answers.



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